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Imagine building your own treasure chest of seeds for your garden. It’s like creating a special collection of seeds that are perfect for your garden, just the way you like it. Sure, you can buy a ready-made seed pack. That’s definitely convenient, but when you assemble a seed bank yourself it will contain that contains food you will eat, that you know how to grow, and that you know how to save the seeds from. In this article, we’ll walk you through how to create your customized seed bank, showing you why it’s a fantastic choice compared to the store-bought option.
My Grandma’s Experience
During the Great Depression, my father’s family in farm country survived through self-reliance and the help of neighbors. When Grandma Johnson was suddenly widowed with five kids, she acquired broccoli seeds, an exotic and valuable item at that time. She was advised to grow it like cauliflower minus the leaf-blanching. She grew it with determination, protected it, and sold the harvest to upscale buyers, sustaining the family for several months.
The lesson here: Grandma already knew how to grow cauliflower and save seeds. Her prior knowledge and experience were the key to seizing this opportunity, because it allowed her to quickly adapt to the unique challenge of cultivating broccoli. Without this pre-existing experience, she might not have been able to efficiently grow and harvest the broccoli, potentially missing out on the opportunity to provide for her family during a difficult time.
Choose a Reliable Seed Saving Book
To begin, get a good seed saving book and start using it. Start now. Besides putting you on the path to true food independence, it will also give you seed storage guidelines and safe minimum populations for each seed in your collection.
Seed To Seed by Suzanne Ashworth is usually recommended and is a very good book, but people have different learning styles and I find it a bit dry and academic. It also dismisses growing many things outside typical zones, like sweet potatoes in New England (which I’ve been doing for years).
My favorite seed book is The Complete Guide To Saving Seeds by Robert and Cheryl Gough. It’s much better for visual learners, has lots of charts and great sections on storage and vigor.
Create Your Own Seed Bank
Buying a readymade seed bank isn’t the answer. They offer limited seed choices and often contain older seeds, which can affect the success of your garden. Building a custom seed bank allows you to tailor your collection to your specific gardening needs and ensures the freshness of your seeds.
Choose a Container
The first step to creating a DIY seed bank is to decide what size container you want to use. Will it be a canning jar? A five-gallon bucket? Vacuum-sealed bag?
I recommend something at least the size of a #10 can or a half-gallon jar. Check local restaurants for gallon/half-gallon glass pickle jars and bakeries for 10 liter (2.6 gallon) buckets. Often, you can get these for free.
In this case, bigger is better, but remember that your seed bank may have to be portable. Many people keep two seed banks in two sizes: one larger and more comprehensive and a more basic one that’s also more portable. Here’s an example of a portable Altoids tin seed vault.
When choosing a container, remember that the enemies of seeds are:
Controlling the first four enemies will greatly slow down the fifth. The simplest solution for this is a cloth or brown paper-lined glass jar kept in the freezer or fridge. If the freezer isn’t, or ceases to be, an option, a cool basement is better than nothing. Just make sure your container is completely watertight to keep out humidity.
Color-indicating silica gel keeps seeds dry. Moisture is seeds’ biggest enemy, and powdered milk and other homemade desiccants really don’t do much. If the gel beads get saturated with moisture, the non-toxic dye turns dark, and they can be re-dried in the oven and reused!
Glass and metal containers are best since plastic is actually a lot more porous than one might think. You’ll just have to refresh the seeds more often. Notice I didn’t say, “replace’. You can buy or trade for more seeds periodically, but growing at least some of your own seeds makes more economic and self-sufficient sense. The seeds will also adapt to the local climate that way.
Select Seeds to Save
Growing vegetables are naturally the first thing that springs to mind when you think about storing seeds for future food production. When you begin to put your own seed bank together, take into account all the above considerations plus a few more:
- Mixed maturity dates. Planting foods that mature at different times is just a plain old good gardening know-how. Let’s say you’re growing a very early tomato, like Stupice, and a late one, like Brandywine, and you get hail the size of ping-pong balls in mid-July that destroys a lot of your crops. (This happened to me!). Or, in a different scenario, Late Blight infests your area. This also happened to me. Because the Stupice tomatoes matured early in the season, they are already safely canned/dried/frozen long before you lose those Brandywines to the hail or blight. This works in reverse, too. If you put out Stupice transplants in early May and a freak snowfall kills them, your Brandywines are still in the house, all snug and waiting for Memorial Day. The same goes for squash, corn and everything else.
- Color, color, color! There’s a whole world of corn outside the yellow/white varieties, and beans aren’t always green. Neither are “greens” for that matter. By mixing up the colors of produce in your seed bank, you’ll get lots of healthful antioxidants, but also sanity-saving variety. It’s one way to avoid flavor fatigue.
- Stuff you don’t usually eat. I can live very well without turnips, but I keep them in my seed bank because they store well over winter and the cabbage family is ridiculously nutritious and easy to preserve. If there are seeds for produce that you don’t usually eat or care for much, perhaps save just a few for family, barter, bribes or to get used to because they have their charms. Which brings us to…
- No-process crops. There’s a lot more to live storage than traditional “root cellar” crops like potatoes and onions. Many other crops do better outside the cellar, like squash and garlic. Did you know that there are melons that keep until Christmas? “Stowell’s Evergreen” sweet corn used to be pulled up when ripe and the whole plant hung upside down to preserve in a semi-fresh state. Such crops don’t require precious water to reconstitute and would be life savers if it weren’t possible to can and freeze. It’s worth researching a wide variety of vegetables to learn about tips like this.
Other Seeds to Save Besides Vegetables
Man cannot live by veggies alone, or food alone, for that matter. It’s a good idea to make room for some non-veggie foods and non-food items. Instead of hunting far and wide, nearly everything discussed below can be found at True Leaf Market, so I’ll just link to other sources where appropriate.
- Grains. Throughout history, villages that prospered and grew into civilizations have shared several commonalities. One of them is harnessing the power of grains. Grains are intensely nutritious, easily grown, easily stored, and provide much more than flour for baking. They can be used for fuel, medicine, as a cover crop, animal feed/bedding, roofing, insulation, garden mulch, alcohol and more. A very small amount of seed can produce a small crop and plenty of more seed for next year, so it’s space-effective to store at least two kinds. Wheat is the obvious choice to grow, but there are a lot more to choose from. Small-Scale Grain Raising is the definitive guide and very readable.
- Fruits. We don’t normally grow bramble, shrub, and tree fruits from seed because the offspring might be different from the parents, and it takes so long to even find out! But it is an option for the long-term, especially for medicinal fruits (elderberry, cranberry) or those with a special quality (quince or apple for pectin).
- Medicine. Store seeds for at least five different medicinal plants and have one be an anti-viral. I favor medicinal plants with other uses, such as cranberries that support prostate health and licorice as an anti-inflammatory. Make sure you have something to address specific health concerns in your family. For instance, one of the grains I store is medicinal in my life, hulless oats. Both my parents had multiple heart attacks and died young of heart disease. I eat oats like it’s my job. One mom I know grows sweet orange trees specifically for their medicinal purposes.
- Oil. I know it’s hard for Americans to imagine struggling to get enough fat, but it can be a real problem in long-term crises like war and pandemic. There are now small, relatively inexpensive, and very effective home oil presses. A host of plants can be pressed for oil, including multi-use plants like pumpkins and flax. Hopi Dye Sunflower provides purple dye, oil, and food. Trifecta! Then all you need to know is how to store oil properly.
- Sweeteners. Natural sweeteners can be made from sorghum, stevia, maple trees, and sugar beets. This is especially important if you are concerned about genetically engineered (GE) crops, since sugar beets are being targeted by GE. Making sugar from the beets is fairly easy, and the beets can also be used like a vegetable or as animal fodder.
- Fibers and Dyes. Ever notice how much leather they wore both in the American frontier and post-collapse movies? It’s not a fashion statement. It’s a predictable side effect of a population in transition. How much more comfortable would our family be (and how much more valuable would we be to society) if we had the option of producing cloth? Cotton is an obvious and familiar choice but has also been heavily impacted by GE, so get seeds from an organic company or in an area where cotton isn’t commercially produced. And how much fun is it that cotton comes in colors besides white? After researching how to make linen from flax, I understood why linen has historically been so expensive. It makes cotton production look like a relaxing weekend hobby! But that’s why it would be so valuable for sale or barter. As for dye plants, the choices are vast; many are also edible or medicinal.
Seeds for Useful Objects
Here are just a few suggestions for seeds that produce plants that, in turn, produce handy items to have on hand:
- Walking Stick Kale
- Loofah sponges
- Dead Man’s Fingers for latex
- Bayberries for candle wax
- Gourds in useful shapes (Dipper, Bushel, etc)
- Jute for rope
- Non-invasive bamboo
With that, these are the top ten seeds you should consider saving.
Food storage advice always includes the instruction to, “Store what you use and use what you store”. That includes storing, using and replenishing your own seeds, now more than ever.
We’ve all seen films of desperate mobs surrounding the aid trucks after a disaster, or tyrant-afflicted masses driven to riot, and we believe that having some cans of food on a shelf will keep us out of the fray. They will. For a while. But those supplies will eventually run out. Along with those cans on a shelf, you need a DIY seed bank, seeds in a jar that will give you more options both now and later.
Do you save seeds? What pro tips have you learned?
Originally published 9/6/2015.